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Lavon Robinson, a college counselor at Downers Grove South High School

Lavon Robinson, a college counselor at Downers Grove South High School, talks to a student about her decision to enroll in a college without knowing how much it will cost.

Lisa Kurian Philip

How the FAFSA debacle is playing out in one college counselor’s office

A student walks into Lavon Robinson’s windowless, walk-in closet of an office at Downers Grove South High School in the southwest suburbs in mid April. She’s three weeks away from graduation and has big news for Robinson, her college counselor.

“I committed to ISU,” she says.

There’s a lot to celebrate: She’s gotten the grades, applied, been admitted and is heading to Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal. She’s excited about sharing a dorm room with a friend. But, there’s one big problem: She doesn’t have any idea how much it will cost her. All she knows is she is going to have to take out loans to pay for it.

This student is one of thousands of seniors across the United States being forced to navigate the college enrollment process without a financial aid award letter, laying out how much they will get in scholarships and grants and how much they will have to pay out of pocket. A breakdown in the federal financial aid process means teenagers are being forced to make one of the biggest purchases of their lives without knowing the actual cost.

College counselors like Robinson are helping their students navigate the difficult situation -- and trying to promote financial prudence without dimming the teens’ enthusiasm for college.

In normal years, colleges send out financial aid award letters by February or March, giving students plenty of time to consider the affordability of their options before College Decision Day on May 1. But this year, colleges are woefully behind. According to a recent survey, as of April 16 about half of colleges had not even started packaging financial aid offers.

It’s the latest fallout from the now-notorious FAFSA debacle that college counselors worry will have lasting and harmful impacts for students, especially those with the least financial resources.

Downers Grove South High School in Chicago's southwest suburbs

Because of the botched FAFSA rollout, seniors at Downers Grove South High School in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, along with students across Illinois and the country, are facing pressure to make college decisions without knowing the financial implications.

Lisa Kurian Philip/WBEZ

“I think it really is going to fall on low-income students, because the wealthy students don’t need the financial aid, so they’re just gonna make a decision,” Robinson said. “Then there will just be more pressure as people … wear their [college] shirts and start to have their buzz and have conversations about like, ‘Why didn’t you make a decision?’ ”

This year federal officials were directed by Congress to simplify the application for college financial aid. In the process, they unleashed a whole host of delays and errors.

As a result, colleges only recently started receiving the information they need to package financial aid award letters. Some have pushed back their enrollment deadlines to May 15 or June 1 but, according to Robinson, that still doesn’t leave students enough time to make an informed decision.

“Even if they got their award letter today, and their decision date is May 15, there’s still only three weeks to really think critically,” he said, speaking in his office on April 19. “They really don’t have much time to get their family sitting down to really have those deep conversations.”

And Robinson worries about the students who feel pressured by their peers, or by the rush to secure student housing or popular classes, to make a decision before they have their award letters.

“Are students going to wait to make the best financial decision,” he said, “or are they just going to choose early and choose colleges where they are going to have to take out more private loans?”

He worries students will take on unmanageable debt or not have the financial support to actually finish school and get a degree.

He worries maybe even more about the students who will opt out of college altogether.

“A lot of my low-income students are just … barely bought into going to college,” he said. “It’s creating a lot of just distrust in the system of like, ‘How is the FAFSA still having issues? Is it even worth it to go to college?’ Some of the low-income students are just like, ‘Whatever I’m over this.’ ”

Lisa Kurian Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip.

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